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Published in the 16-30 April 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

A tale of three cricketers
By Saeed Suhrawardy

ndian Muslims did not engage a public relations specialist to project their positive image. They did not engage an advertising agency to proclaim their virtues. However similar results have been achieved by the performance of three Muslims cricketers. They have been hailed as heroes. However, the hospitality extended to Indian visitors in Pakistan, not necessarily sports men and women, has substantially contributed to the sentiment.

The arena of sports is comparable to literature, fine arts, music and other forms of creative activity. There is enough scope for envy and healthy competition, but not hatred and jealousy.

Their names are Mohammad Kaif, Zaheer Khan and Irfan Pathan. They belong to different regions with different social backgrounds. But they share a common passion for success of their team and country. One among them, Mohammad Kaif belongs to Uttar Pradesh, where Muslims have distinguished themselves in soccer, hockey and athletics. Tehsil Chail of Allahabad District was a great nursery of sports talent. Khurshid Ahmad, a classmate at graduate level, became a national champion in pole vaulting. Another contemporary, Wahid Nazir Usmani, distinguished himself in athletics. In an age when the common lament among Muslims was ‘prejudice’ and ‘discrimination’, they got jobs in police and continued there. Mohammad Idris, a hockey player from Allahabad got a job in the Government Press, an institution that has nursed local talent for several years. However, Idris could not move to the national side, because he played in the same position as K.D. Singh Baboo, a better and more influential player. His son Atif Idris had better luck. He played for the national team but not for a long time. However, Inam-ur.Rahman, Mohammad Shahid, Aslam Sher Khan and Zafar Iqbal distinguished themselves as members of the national team. Unfortunately, the present national hockey side does not have any Muslim. So far no thought has been give to the omission. Is it due to the fact that Muslims have given up hockey for good? Unfortunately, the growth and popularity of cricket has overshadowed or eclipsed other sports. The establishment of National Sports Authority had only marginal impact on the situation so far.

Two among the three, Zaheer Khan and Irfan Pathan hail from the ‘Hindu Rashtra’of Narendra Modi. Another fast bowler, Manaf Patel is waiting in the wings. Irfan Pathan and Manaf Patel both have been coached by Mehdi Sheikh, who has been gifting cricket stars from Baroda. His cricket academy is poorly equipped. He does not have resources. But he has made up for all those handicaps by his sincerity, devotion and commitment. After the success of Irfan Pathan, his recognition as distinguished coach. is due. He belongs to the category of famous coaches. Tendulkar was coached by Achrekar and Kapil Dev by D.B. Azad of Chandigarh. Mehdi Sheikh deserves national Daronacharya Award. His academy too deserves state support for better results. Sachin Tendulkar’s coach Achrekar has been similarly honored. If Indian coaches are encouraged, there shall be no need of importing a coach from as far as New Zealand. This remark does not reflect on the great work done by John Wright, who seems to have produced a winning combination. 

The history of Indian cricket carries a galaxy of Muslim stars. It includes the first genuine fast bowler, Mohammad Nissar. He had the distinction of capturing five wickets at the famous cricket ground Lords. Among batsmen, Syed Mushtaq Ali of Indore, who opened the innings with Vijay Merchant, leads the list. Their styles were different. Mushtaq was enterprising whereas Merchant was extremely cautious. Salim Durrani was another popular cricket alrounder. Another famous figure in Indian cricket was Abbas Ali Baig. His maiden test century was immortalized by the kiss planted on his cheeks by an enterprising maiden before a cheering crowd. Muslims have been distinguished captains of Indian cricket team. Nawab Iftekhar Ali Khan of Pataudi, father of Mansoor Ali Khan led Indian cricket team after independence. The younger Pataudi had a fairly long stint as captain. Mohammad Azharuddin too had a long innings as a cricketer and captain

One thing is common about the cricket careers of Kaif, Pathan and Zaheer. They have not been included in the national team because there is ‘reservation’ for Muslims there. Before graduating to the national side, they have worked hard to improve their sporting skills in streets, schools and subsequently at district, and state level, and later as members of junior national teams. They have not been gifted their positions. They have earned them. They are not there because they are Muslims. They have to maintain their form and improve their performance. What applies to cricket holds good for other fields also. Kaif, Zaheer, and Irfan all the three have come up from humble middle class origins. Their parents were not in a position to afford their coaching at a better-known cricket academy. 

Sports are an important career option. The idea has to be sold widely. Unfortunately leaders of Muslim middle class are obsessed only with meagre representation of Muslims in the central services. Nobody has led a caravan urging larger participation of Muslims in physical education and sports. 

There is a trust that offers awards to Muslim institutions, students and teachers on the basis of higher secondary results. But I have no information about any organization or institution that recognizes and encourages talented Muslim sports men and women. Those who distinguished themselves in a particular arena were lucky to have the support of their parents or guardians. Among hundred billionaires of India, I could spot five who carried Muslim names. But the century-old Mohammedan Sporting of Kolkata continues to struggle without a sponsor. The club is not in a position to find eleven Muslims for their team. Muslim boys who successfully finished their term at Tata Football Academy, Jamshedpur, are seen in action all over the country. Soccer as a career prospect is next to cricket. Soccer is no longer confined to West Bengal, with its three premier clubs- Mohan Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting. Goa has emerged as another rival to Kolkata. Maharashtra and Punjab too aspire for frontline position in the game.

The scramble for fielding the strongest team compels club managements to seek good soccer players from abroad, as the supply of good soccer players falls far short of demand. There was a time when the Iranian players were in favour. Jamshed Nasiri is still there as the coach of Mohammedan Sporting. At present the maximum number comes from Africa, particularly from Nigeria. Recruits are sought from Latin America, particularly from Brazil and Argentina also. As the number of teams playing soccer in the country goes up, the demand for top players also increases.

Employment like other economic fields is subject to the forces of supply and demand. Apart from cricket, football should be the second career option for Muslims. Tennis also is a lucrative game, but a large sum of money is required for meeting international standards. It goes to the credit of Sania Mirza, her parents and coach that she continues to do well. The avenues of careers in sports are many, but not all of them within reach of persons of average or moderate means. 

The successful career of Kaif, Zaheer and Pathan has demonstrated one thing. Muslims have to outshine others in their fields, if they desire their identity recognized and established. Here is scope for a misunderstanding. My intention is not to stress participation in sports at the expense of academic pursuits. Till the day, Muslims manage to get reservation of jobs according to their ratio to total population, they should not rule out any career option. Sports deserve attention for that reason. The number of Muslim institutions runs into thousands if we add the number of madrasas, the number shall reach lakhs. If facilities are provided there shall be many more sport stars on the horizon. «


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